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Death and grief after Covid-19

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I received this circulated message from the Science Media Centre in London:

Can anyone help with this media request from CNN please?

“I’m looking for expert advice on how to cope with the death of a loved one from coronavirus – especially since we cannot be with them as they die, or hold our loved ones at the funeral. Often, they are stable and then crash and are suddenly gone.

Is this grief different than what we typically face at the loss of a loved one and how?

What other times in our human existence have we faced similar circumstances?

What advice can experts give on how to cope?”

My response:

These are of course all highly relevant questions and certainly people will be looking for advice and words of solace.

First of all, are there parallels from other times to the experience of someone dying and not being there to witness their passing, or not being present at their funerals? I don’t want to overplay comparisons between the present pandemic and war, but I imagine this might be something that happens in wartime. For example, soldiers going away and being buried, often anonymously, in some corner of a foreign field. Often no body is retrieved at all, as would be the case in sailors aboard ships that are sunk or airmen shot down over water. But also, at home, civilians may be destroyed by bombs and again there may be few if any traces of them to bury or cremate.

Other instances might have included the experiences of fishing families, where any stormy night might be the last one for all the men in a family. Some other occupations also seem to have been pretty hazardous, for example mining industries or working on early railway construction projects.

The shock in the present age is that we just aren’t used to this sudden and remote mortality. Our experience is going to be complicated by the fact that we may feel that our loved one has died isolated and unsupported by us. We may well have been anxious about them already, especially if they were elderly or had serious health problems, and the fact that we weren’t there is likely to make us feel guilty. Some degree of guilt is so often present in normal bereavement though (we usually think of things that we might have done or said differently) but it is likely to be exaggerated with covid-19. On reflection, we might remind ourselves that we couldn’t have done more but this may not be enough to suppress such feelings. It may in some cases be worth reflecting that many people express the wish that, when their end comes, it should do so quickly. Hopefully, the deceased has been comfortable or unaware at the time of their passing.

Not being able to get together as family or friends of the deceased is also going to be hard and I guess that is different from wartime or occupational deaths, where at least everyone was free to come together for a wake or a funeral.

What advice might be offered? Hard, because everyone is different and the circumstances and context of each death will vary so much. I think the main thing is for the key people in the life of the deceased to communicate with each other, to share their grief by whatever medium (phone, social media, skype) that they feel comfortable with. It’s probably good to organise a memorial after covid-19 has settled down to celebrate the life lived. At the anniversary of the death is an obvious time, since the anniversary of a bereavement is already significant and brings intense feelings.

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